Fear

Israel's Calls for Jews to Flee Europe Aren't the Answer

European anti-Semitism is at record levels, but European Jews are rejecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for them to leave.

02.18.15 10:15 AM ET

European anti-Semitism is at record levels, but among Europe’s Jews, a backlash is growing against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “invitation” for them to leave.

Even before the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, the data is sobering.  In the U.K., 2014 saw 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents, the highest number since contemporary records began being kept, in 1984 and more than double the 2013 figure. In France, the waves of cemetery desecrations and daily harassment—well captured in a variation on the Ten Hours Walking as a Woman in New York video, Ten Hours of Walking in Paris as a Jew—have become so intense that over 6,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel in 2014, more than double the 2013 number. Seventy-four percent of French Jews say they have considered leaving.

These are terrifying developments, one that I never would have imagined, growing up as an American Jew at the end of the 20th century.

The Holocaust is history. It could never happen again. Right?

It’s precisely this fuzzy thinking, though, that has led to a backlash against many of the efforts to exploit the surge in anti-Semitism for political gain.

When American, European, and Israeli Jews read about anti-Semitic violence in Europe, we think Holocaust. We were born into trauma. Most of us have relatives who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. I certainly do. And if we don’t, we’re taught about it from the very beginnings of our Jewish educations. Even without the spray-painted swastikas, there is no way for a European-descended Jew not to associate the broken windows and vandalized cemeteries with the Nazis.

Yet this wave of anti-Semitism is obviously vastly different. The Holocaust was perpetrated by the State with widespread popular support. These incidents are perpetrated by a marginalized minority, and draw widespread popular condemnation. The Holocaust was about purging Europe of the Jewish race. These incidents are about holding all Jews responsible for the political and military actions of Israel. Assigning such collective responsibility—let alone acting on it—is still anti-Semitic, and still evil, but it is different from what came before.

So, when Netanyahu “reminded” French Jews that “Israel is your home” and would welcome them with “open arms,” his message was a cynical one. First, it was really for Israeli domestic consumption; facing a tougher-than-expected election, and reeling from the domestic criticism of his pending speech to Congress, Netanyahu needs to look strong. And he needs to stoke fear, which is the basis of his rightist party’s appeal. Everyone hates us, so we need a strong leader, not naïve peacemaking.

Second, Netanyahu’s deliberate elisions of the Holocaust and Islamist extremism are made in bad faith. “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,” Netanyahu said, evoking all the familiar ghosts. But the horrifying murders in Paris and Copenhagen, as well as the vast majority of anti-Semitic incidents in 2014, were not a resurgence of Nazism. On the contrary, they were perpetrated by the only people neo-Nazis hate more than Jews. They are despicable acts of terrorism, and indefensible—but they are also expressions of anti-Israel sentiment. Both-and, not either-or.

In fact, Netanyahu and the terrorists seem to agree that there is no space between Jews and the Jewish State. The terrorists hold innocent Jews responsible for the actions of the State of Israel, and Netanyahu presumes to speak “as a representative of the entire Jewish people” when he delivers his speech about Iran.

They also agree that the best place for Jews is Not In Europe. Surely, the anti-Semites in France and Denmark would be only too pleased for those countries’ Jewish citizens to take Bibi’s advice.

For all these reasons and more, Netanyahu’s comments have provoked a fierce backlash.

First, many in Europe have worried that the anti-Jewish Islamist attacks may actually strengthen the anti-Jewish far right. When entire Muslim communities are demonized, that strengthens European nationalists. Jews lose twice—first at the hands of terrorists, and second at the hands of the anti-terrorist nationalists.

Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.

Second, Jewish leaders have excoriated Netanyahu’s remarks. Speaking to the Israeli website NRG (and translated in the newspaper Haaretz), European Jewish Association head Rabbi Menachem Margolin said, “The Israeli government has to stop with that Pavlovian declaration every time there is an anti-Semitic incident in Europe.”

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Moving to Israel “is not a solution for terror.”  He continued:

It saddens me that after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government comes out with the same declarations about the importance of aliya [immigration to Israel], instead of rallying all of the diplomatic and intelligence tools at their disposal to increase the security of the Jews living in Europe.

Indeed, many have argued that the “Flee to Israel” campaign undermines the very notion of European Jews as citizens of Europe. You’re not really at home there, Netanyahu is saying (in fairness to him, echoing a century of Zionist rhetoric). And whatever culture you may have co-created, in 250 years of emancipated European life, is not worth saving.

One of the most interesting responses to the Netanyahu campaign was published this week in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, in an op-ed by Keith Kahn-Harris headlined “If British Jews are attacked, respect our dignity—and keep your agendas to yourself.”

Kahn-Harris begins by noting that a Copenhagen-like attack in the U.K. is entirely possible. And then, he says, the grandstanding will begin. Rightists will say “that supporting the Palestinians is the same as supporting those who seek to kill us.” Leftists will say “Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism are simply disingenuous attempts to deny Jewish responsibility for Palestinian suffering.” The result will be a “cacophony of self-serving opinions.” 

This has certainly been the case so far. Precisely when non-ideological, or perhaps trans-ideological, solutions are most needed to combat a global threat, Left and Right alike fit the attacks into their pre-existing narratives. It’s anti-Semitism, just like the Holocaust. It’s anti-Israel, just like a firebombing disguised as a protest

In fact, the European manifestations of global Islamist jihad are all of these and more. They are political and religious; anti-Semitic and anti-Israel; born of specific, new conditions of class and race, and hideously familiar. And they are not going to go away soon, no matter how much they are oversimplified.